One day in mid-February 2010, a friend, H, shot himself after his car was repossessed. He had also recently emerged from a messy divorce, but his financial woes pushed him over the edge that day. However, he also had many close friends who loved him and thought he was larger than life, who were shocked and devastated at his surprising self-harm.
It seems to me that H must have had an abysmally out of whack self-image if he hated himself enough to blow his own head off. The demon self-cherishing – exaggerated disappointment at my wishes not being fulfilled, seeing them as the most important thing in the world – contributed to that sad, needless tragedy. Certainly it was not love or wisdom. Self-grasping ignorance and attachment caused him to create and believe a mental fiction about who he was, ie, a failure, someone whose life was not worth living. Yet all his friends knew that he was a lovely sweet engaging man and had everything to live for — he could have been a Bodhisattva if that was the story he had told himself instead on that day in February. There was a lesson in this for all of us who knew him. We have to be wise about who we believe we are and what we need, or, one way or another, slowly or quickly, we will self-destruct.
Dealing with a broken heart
When painful feelings arise, it is wise not to resist them – what you resist persists – but see them as passing bad weather in the mind without repressing or indulging them. Further to this I have thought: (a) my thoughts don’t have to be that scary, they are bubbles arising from the root mind, they won’t kill me if I don’t buy into them and they disappear if I stop thinking them, and (b) those feelings and thoughts are empty — even within them is a non-conceptual wisdom and peace if I allow myself to experience it. A very wise Buddhist nun once gave me this advice to cure my broken heart:
When bad feelings come, and the whole body and mind ache, instead of resisting it, it is good to let the suffering arise in the mind, become one with it, and look at it so closely – it dissolves into emptiness and beyond this there is nothing. Where is it, what, why? It dissolves into emptiness. Don’t be afraid of the feeling of suffering. It is just imputation, just label. See that there is nothing there, only the mind of clear light, which is bliss and emptiness. Then feel love for everyone. Be Vajrayogini.
A friend told me that when she was once suffering from heavy and unrequited attachment, her perennially down to earth mother told her that it is like trying to quit smoking – the cravings come and the cravings also go. Which got me thinking about how to relate to ourselves in such a way that we are able to give up attachment – all forms of dependency and heavy sadness. How if H had related to himself differently, none of the above would have happened, and today we could all be having a laugh with him. I had had a lovely conversation with him the previous summer at Madhyamaka Center – he had Tantric empowerments, he was really loving his Vajrayogini retreat. So why didn’t he keep believing he was a blissful, wise, free enlightened being instead of the ordinary dead-end fiction of being a lonely, financially incompetent, rejected man? In truth, both are fictions, both are mere thought or labels, but so is everything; and there is a world of infinite possibilities in the clear light of our limitless Buddha nature, the seed of enlightenment, the seed of the Dharmakaya.
When we try to give up smoking, we have to identify with being a non-smoker who occasionally has manageable cravings (which can even be a useful teacher) as opposed to a smoker who unnaturally has to give up something that is part of them and is ending up in a state of need and loss. No one will live like that for long, in need and loss – we would sooner cave in to the attachment. But in the invisible world of our boundlessly creative mind, especially moment by moment, if we think wisely we can see that we need nothing more, we have lost nothing, we have nothing to fear from the future.
Mental fictions and self-image
We tell ourselves stories about ourselves and what we need all the time. They are all mental fictions. There is no reality behind those hallucinatory empty thoughts. We can think anything we want in the invisible world, the world of the mind, of which this manifest physical world is simply like a mirror reflection. Mind is formless. Mind is invisible (also we can’t hear it, smell it etc.). Working at the level of our subtlest mind, dropping our awareness from our head into our root mind at our heart chakra, is far more effective too; and we can do that through belief to begin with. Close your eyes, drop into your heart, and think about who you are, where you are, what you are. This world of the mind – of experience, of feelings, even of physical sensations – is the only world there actually is. Can you point to any world or body or self outside of your experience of it? (And even the mind is empty of existing from its own side, dependent on its reflections or perceptions to exist.) Close our eyes, and we can think that we are jumping from planet to planet. Someone told me that when she closes her eyes she can think that she can walk — and she has always been in a wheelchair. Someone else told me that in her mind, and her experience, she thinks she is whole, even though a truck left her unable to stand up straight without feeling compression and pain.
We can think we are a smoker, dependent on cigarettes for our happiness. Or we can think we are a non-smoker. When the craving arises, it is just some habit we got into, and we are not a smoker, so it is natural to not seek the cigarette and just see that habit as a temporary cloud in the vast expanse of sky. One of my favorite Geshe Kelsang quotes is:
We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking. ~ Meaningful to Behold, p. 190
When we are attached to someone, we can and often do make up this mental fiction: “I am dependent on them for my happiness. I need them. I am weak without them. If they seem uninterested, I behave like a bumbling idiot around them to get their attention. I am in a state of loss when they are not in my life or when they reject me. I miss them, they are missing. The future is empty without them. Only they understand me, really. To give them up will leave me in a state of lacking, it will leave me incomplete, needing something I no longer have. Even if I know I have to give them up, or they have died, it is unnatural, as it is going to cause me to be shadow of my former self, and the life they breathed into me will be gone.” Etc etc.
If we check, this is not a pleasant self-image and does not give rise to any genuine feelings of joy, only relief on the occasions that they call us and say, “Everything is alright, I love you, marry me, I’m not really dead”, etc. Until the relief passes, as by nature relief does. Relief is so-called changing suffering, only a temporary release of, or distraction from, underlying need and want and suffering, like scratching an itch according to Nagarjuna. Also, we hold on tightly to the supposed source of our wholeness, which is perceived as out there not within, and get rope burn as the rope must inevitably slide through our fingers due to impermanence. We condense the whole universe into one person so that it must crumble when they disappear.
Whereas we can make up any fiction we want anytime. And we can believe it, if it is helpful, while knowing that it is empty of inherent reality. Our self-image changes all the time anyway, and we can change it ourselves far more easily than we might have thought possible. In the invisible world, there are infinite possibilities (whether you want to look at this spiritually or quantumly or both). Everything begins in the mind, in the imagination. What will happen if instead of thinking I have lost everything I held dear, I think instead: “I have everything I need for my happiness right here and now. This moment is perfect. I am strong. I am able to experience love, compassion, renunciation, faith, wisdom, joy and bliss. I am a Bodhisattva. I am a Yogini in a charnel ground, fearful of nothing and no one, transforming everything, surrounded by the corpses of my own and others’ fake suffering self-images. I am a Buddha.”
We don’t need to think “I want to be Buddha some day” or “I will be Buddha in the future”. Wanting or hoping creates a gap between who we think we are now (some deluded being with big problems) and who we might be in some la la land future. And how will we bridge that gap? If we can’t bridge it today, why will we be able to tomorrow? Instead, we already ARE, and we relate to that and happily create all the causes for it in the here and now – meditations on love and compassion, the six perfections, bliss and emptiness, the central channel, and so on. Or, simply put, we can start with a thought like, “I am a loving person who has everything I need”, and let our belief in our good qualities get bigger and bigger over time, as our imagination and wisdom appreciating the nature of these good qualities improves.
If there are infinite possibilities and no constraint on thought, if I can be anything, why not be a Buddha? The previous holy beings have paved the way for this and shown the best possible self-image in their Tantric revelations. How could we possibly come up with something this deep, sophisticated, or blissful without their input?! Therefore, “I am a Buddha, such as Avalokiteshvara or Tara, or Heruka and Vajrayogini, manifesting all the infinite bounty and good qualities of the Dharmakaya in every moment and leading all living beings to that state.” Also: “I can accept any unpleasant feelings/emotions/sensations — they are just clouds drifting in the endless blissful expanse of my mind, useful for teaching me about renunciation and compassion and wisdom. Like pleasant feelings, they are also just manifestations of the empty sky of the basic Dharmakaya. I can welcome and embrace them, and in doing so they miraculously have no more power to hurt. They also dissolve away, as all thoughts do sooner or later, because nothing lasts even a moment.”
Well, who is there to contradict that? It is just as real or unreal as “I am useless without you.” Who says? Also, when we think of others looking at us pityingly, “Poor thing, she is useless without him”, (a) it is unlikely that they are in fact wasting much time thinking that – people tend to relate to us as far more of a whole individual than we do ourselves when we’re suffering heartache; and (b) when we change our view of ourselves, people will follow suit, sooner or later. With love and compassion, we don’t care or take seriously what people project on us in any case, we mainly want to help them – there is no need for their approval of us, we are more interested in their view of themselves.
Of course it is more “realistic” as in closer to reality to view ourselves as whole, as complete, as loving, as a Buddha, because our real nature is our Buddha nature. Our wisdom understanding that nothing is fixed is what enables us to change into whatever we want to change into, to transform; and that wisdom is the ground of our new experience. This is as opposed to our self-grasping ignorance, which is the ground of our attachment and aversion to real things and people, including our own depressing self-image. “It must be real because it appears to me that way!!! I’m not moving until the reflection in the mirror moves!”
Telling ourselves the same old stories and clichés about our own and others’ lives will never liberate us from suffering. We will simply live the clichés again and again and again — birth, ageing, sickness, death, disappointment, lack of fulfillment, dissatisfaction, birth, ageing, etc. Cyclic existence (Skt. samsara) just is one big cliché. The other day when I was complaining about getting older and uglier, looking I think for sympathy or reassurance, my friend effectively shut me up by saying this instead:
“The story of samsara has no answer.”
How long do we need?
There is a lot of talk these days about “manifesting”, eg, The Secret, a Course in Miracles, so called ‘new thought’. From a Buddhist point of view, manifesting a favorable reality depends not only upon our way of perceiving reality but also upon the karmic appearances created by our good and kind intentions. And, from a Buddhist point of view, if we can manifest reality, we may as well skip the ordinary samsaric manifestations of wealth, companionship, sex, a good reputation etc. “Be careful what you wish for!”, as the saying goes, partly because a large number of our desires are contradictory eg, pizza and a great figure, excitement and security, a long life and eternal youth, etc. Instead, we can go for the blissful enlightened reality that will always help both ourselves and others. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We can gradually come to identify with every pure, enlightened quality as explained in the Sutras and manifested in Technicolor in the Tantric Deities and mandalas, and progress will be swift – we can even gain enlightenment in one lifetime.
One lifetime?!?! You sure?! Well, given the infinite possibilities of the Dharmakaya, the extraordinary and fortunate reality that Buddha himself has appeared in our life and consciousness to introduce us to these, and the reality that all the methods exist and have always worked, why not?! Why would it take more than one lifetime if we really believe it? If we come to know that nothing is really out there, how long do we need to dismantle it? If we come to know that our thoughts are empty, invisible, with nothing really behind them, how long do we need to change them?